SAIC Founder J. Robert Beyster Calls Moving Company HQ from San Diego to D.C. ‘Inevitable’—But Says He Probably Would Not Have Done It

9/29/09Follow @bvbigelow

The timing of my lunch yesterday with SAIC founder J. Robert Beyster was pretty close to impeccable, since it came just four days after the defense contractor formally announced the relocation of its corporate headquarters from San Diego to McLean, VA.

The departure of a Fortune 500 headquarters with a 40-year history in one city used to be the stuff of wounded civic pride—and great newspaper copy. I expected to hear at least some wailing and gnashing of teeth among San Diego’s economic development leaders, municipal elders, and other community kingpins. Big companies with established roots are often a crucial source of corporate philanthropy and financial support for symphonies, museums, and other cultural centers—so the loss of a Fortune 500 company headquarters is not just about bragging rights, either.

Yet San Diego heard barely a discouraging word about the announcement last week, while the governor of Virginia was crowing about SAIC’s arrival as the state’s fourth-largest company. So I was curious to hear what Beyster had to say.

“I felt it was inevitable that the move would occur because so much business is done in Washington,” Beyster tells me. He adds, “I’m not sure I would have done it if I was in charge,” and says the reason SAIC kept its headquarters in San Diego is because this is where he and his wife wanted to live. But he also notes matter-of-factly that he no longer has much say in the matter. “The important thing is that something stupid isn’t being done,” Beyster says. “It’s not at all a bad thing.”

Beyster, who is now 85, retired five years ago from the company also known as Science Applications International Corp. He was working as a nuclear physicist at San Diego’s General Atomics when he founded his own company in 1969 to provide government agencies with highly specialized services—such as calculating the yields of nuclear weapons. He’s told me previously the business was so specialized at first that he expected it to remain small. But he expanded SAIC by recruiting other prominent scientists, enticing them with offers of stock and leadership roles in an employee-owned company. Beyster went to extraordinary lengths to maintain SAIC’s culture of employee-ownership and entrepreneurship, creating a federation of high-tech business units that nuclear scientist Harold Agnew once described as “a farmer’s market with central heating.”

In many cases, the scientists Beyster recruited came with the government-funded projects they were already working on. So the company, which generated $250,000 in sales in its first year, has expanded over the past 40 years into a $10 billion-a-year juggernaut of government contracts.

Most of that business is conducted with government agencies in and around Washington, D.C., where SAIC now has … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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    I think moving the company from San Diego to D.C. could be alright if it is manages correctly. Anyhow thanks for sharing the story Bruce.